Penn-Northwest Celebrates Successes, Looks to Future

WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. — Penn-Northwest Development Corp. Executive Director Rod Wilt touted the organization’s successes over the past year, but warned that the Shenango Valley needs to do a better job of retaining the talent being trained at local colleges, universities and trade schools.  

Wilt, who was hired just over a year ago to lead Penn-Northwest, addressed the Shenango Valley business community Wednesday morning during the economic development organization’s annual meeting, which was held at the Park Inn by Radisson. 

“We’re really excited about the future, about moving Mercer County forward,” Wilt said. 

Even during the pandemic, Penn-Northwest generated and responded to 56 new industry leads, distributed 52 project proposals and coordinated 13 site tours with new businesses, resulting in three new companies coming to Mercer County, he reported. 

Additionally, during the fiscal year that ended June 30, the organization provided more than $8.2 million in direct technical, financial, workforce and other support to 75 businesses in partnership with Mercer County, and partnered with Mercer County Industrial Development Authority to put together a $32.5 million bond issue for Thiel College.  

Wilt also expressed concern about Mercer County’s continuing population loss. According to the results of the most recent decennial U.S. Census, the county’s population decreased for the second consecutive decade. He pointed out that much of the talent that comes for instruction at institutions like Thiel and Penn State University’s Shenango Campus or one of the local trade schools leave once they complete their education. 

“We’re not retaining enough of these people,” he said. Reversing that trend is “our number one priority. It’s job one, it’s job two, it’s job three.”  

To that end, as part of its 2021-2022 Program of Work, Penn-Northwest has instituted an “aggressive internship program,” which gives college students and one high school student an opportunity to work at the organization on “real projects,” he said. 

In addition, Penn-Northwest has its Future Leaders Advisory Council, made up of individuals 40 and younger, he said. Members have helped to update Penn-Northwest’s website and social media channels, and are ingrained into the committee process. All Penn-Northwest’s printed materials are run by the council to ensure they’re reflective of the entire county’s population, he said.      

“We need to talk to our job creators out there about creating jobs that are more attractive for college graduates – even if they’re at the entry level – and they can see their way forward through the organizational chart,” he said.

“We all must be the lights in this community, in this county and shed light across it,” said Riley Atterholt, who works in sales and marketing at JCL Energy in Sharon and heads the Future Leaders Advisory Council. 

Riley Atterholt

“Mercer County has been portrayed as a black hole for many decades – no jobs, no opportunity, no hope,” he continued. “We must change that narrative.”

In particular, high school students who are still figuring out what they want to do in life need to be encouraged to stay to breathe their life, inspiration and creativity into the community, Atterholt said.

Atterholt was among four honorees presented with Penn-Northwest’s Improvement Movement Team Champion Awards, one of three sets of awards given at the annual meeting. Other recipients of that award were Harold “H” Bender, sole owner of Team Hardinger Transportation Group, which has a facility near Mercer County in Barkeyville; Jeremiah Wann, president of Imperial Systems in Mercer, a leading manufacturer of air filtration and dust collection equipment; and Susan Traverso, president of Thiel College in Greenville.

Penn-Northwest also presented its “Make It in Mercer County” New Industry Impact Awards and Local Industry Impact Awards to six companies.

Recipients of the New Industry Impact awards were Hall Technical Services, a provider of ground support products and services for the aviation industry that took over an industrial site in Grove City, and Dean Natural Vending, a vending machine company that took over and is expanding the CHIP Building at the LindenPointe Innovative Business Campus in Hermitage.

The addition, which got under way earlier this year, is about a week away from completion, according to Robert Dean, CEO.

“We’ve already moved in,” he said. Business is up 50% from earlier this year, he added. 

Robert Dean, CEO of Dean Natural Vending, receives the New Industry Impact award.

The Local Industry Impact Awards were presented to American Hospitality Group, which operates three hotels in Grove City, including one undergoing an extensive renovation scheduled for completion in early 2022; NLMK, which has two Mercer County facilities, including a mill in Sharon that is undergoing upgrades; Powered Aire Inc. in Greenville, an air curtain manufacturer; and American Cap in Wheatland, which manufactures compressed gas cylinder accessories and other cylinder components and recently completed a corporate expansion. 

Business at American Hospitality’s three Grove City hotels remains 10% to 15% below 2019 levels as the hospitality industry recovers from the pandemic, said Sean Leatherman, senior vice president. 

“We really expect 2022 to be a bounce-back year,” he said. 

First and foremost, Penn-Northwest’s focus this fiscal year is on business retention and expansion of Mercer County’s existing businesses, Wilt said. 

“Nearly everyone across the board has a need for employees right now,” he said. By accomplishing that, “we can create a lot of excitement around our new industry recruitment.” Additionally, he wants to extend economic development’s reach to “some nontraditional areas,” such as nonprofit organizations and entities looking to improve quality of life by enhancing local parks and expanding recreation opportunities.

Pictured at top: Rod Wilt, Penn-Northwest Development Corp. executive director, speaks during the organization’s annual meeting.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.